An Invisible Storm: Reflections on my Intercultural Academic Transitions
This is a guest post written by Dr Dely Lazarte Elliot about her experiences as an international student. She is part of the Creativity Culture and Faith Research and Teaching group in the School of Education, College of Social Sciences. I now work as a lecturer in the University of Glasgow, but a good few years ago I was an enthusiastic international student who came to Britain to pursue her PhD. How exciting! Well, not until I found myself panicking when I realised that there were some things I had neither expected nor prepared myself for.
Let me explain… My initial learning experience was shaped by my primary and secondary education and subsequently, by doing my first degree in the Philippines. These years were critical, offering formative experience during the time when my mind was arguably at its most impressionable. I came to understand what was expected of an excellent student.
Following my undergrad, my adventurous spirit took me to Thailand. I initially worked as a schoolteacher and later as a university lecturer. Despite the fact that Thailand and the Philippines are both Southeast Asian countries, surprisingly there exist as many distinct cultural differences (e.g. language, religious beliefs, societal values) as similarities (e.g. collectivist practices, hierarchical society). It was extremely comforting that I could ‘pass’ as another Thai (provided I remained quiet). Although I had to adjust societally, undertaking my part-time Master’s was a different story. Being an international student in Thailand was generally smooth sailing. To me, it was merely continuing to study in the manner I always studied back home. The largely shared conceptions of teaching and learning (supported by collectivist practices) meant that very little adjustment was required. Since I knew the ‘rules of the game’ I had to play to become a successful learner well, this made student life in Thailand relatively easy for me.
As a result, I felt more confident when it was time for me to do my PhD. I had experience of being an international student after all, only this time it was in the West – I thought that would be the only difference! I expected that studying in the UK would be different, but only slightly. Naturally, I expected to be surrounded by English-speaking Caucasians and international students and academics (perhaps with little opportunity to use Filipino or Thai). I prepared for the weather by carefully selecting clothes to help see me through the coldest season (the chances of wearing a flimsy formal dress that I stubbornly brought with me were pretty slim). Being used to reasonably priced food in Asia, I soon realised that ‘going out’ for meals was over. My options were either to learn how to cook or forever eat fish and chips! The latter didn’t sound palatable. To my delight, I really enjoyed cooking, especially with my housemates and friends, who were happy to sample my ‘experimental’ dishes.
By contrast, my biggest adjustment involved things unseen. I lodged with an elderly English lady who insisted that I address her by her first name. I never did that, but I knew that I offended her by not doing so. How could I? My upbringing told me that it was unacceptable! Likewise, my supervisors stressed the importance of thinking reflectively, analytically and critically through academic writing. This was easier said than done, because what others did not see (including my own supervisors) was the psychological barrier inhibiting me from carrying out the tasks. My thoughts were constantly plagued by ‘Who am I to criticise the experts in the field? I am a “nobody”, a mere student’. Panic started to set in – how could I apply critical thinking? After a long struggle, I had to learn one very important lesson that contradicted the sum total of all my previous learning experience: academics and theorists are not my superiors, but my equals. Looking back, a large part of my PhD experience entailed open-mindedness, challenging and broadening my previous learning experience in order to calm the learning ‘storm’ and succeed in the UK’s academic culture.
It is no surprise that my fascination with ‘intercultural academic transitions’ typically experienced by international students, probably more so by students from the Far East going to the West, instilled my passion to focus my research on this area. Despite lots of studies already undertaken, there are still uncharted facets to be explored; many of them have practical utility for prospective international students who are just about to embark on a similar journey. And this has now become my ‘wee’ academic mission!
For international students, a PhD is a long, complex but rewarding journey. I would encourage you to keep an open mind and be prepared to negotiate between your previous and your new learning experiences (at times, this might mean confronting your own understanding of how things ‘should’ be). Irrespective of whether it’s taking place in academia or not, every interaction is a potential source of valuable learning. Consider all these with a view to broadening your experience and maximising what international education can offer you. All the best and enjoy the journey!